Choppy Seas, Calm Spirits: Reflections on Mark 4:35-41
Each of us is trying to live by the seed parables' message in the midst of a chaotic life. Each of us is surrounded by chaos, realizing that our attempts to order our lives are legitimate, but precarious. Hailstorms lurk. Drunk drivers careen along the roads. Addictions resurface. Cancers decide they've had enough of remission and want to return. People in power abuse it and create destruction for those in their power. The Allstate Insurance ads are well named: "Mayhem is Coming." We could also say that "Mayhem is here" in our lives. We all have aspects of our lives that are currently not under our control. We cannot control the behavior of others. We cannot even control our own behaviors at times, feeling a lot like Paul of Romans 7:14-25, "knowing what we ought to do and doing the opposite."
All we need is faith the size of a grain of mustard seed to withstand the storm. That's about how much the disciples in Matthew's version of this story have. They have a little bit of faith, and it grows throughout the gospel. In Matthew (8: 26) Jesus says to the disciples: "Why are you afraid, little faith ones?" (8:26). "You of little faith" is not an insult. It's more a sort of pet name for the disciples Jesus uses throughout the gospel. (See also Matthew 6:30; 14:31.)
In Mark 4:35-41 Jesus says to the disciples: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" The disciples in Mark do not even have faith the size of a mustard seed. After the exorcisms and healings they have witnessed they still do not have an inkling as to Jesus' power. So now, having shown Jesus' power over the demons within people's hearts and bodies, Mark shows us Jesus' power over the demons of the sea, the primordial forces of chaos.
We've described the sea as the third character in this story. Its role is to threaten the disciples and to test their faith. The demonic forces that reside in the sea's underbelly stir the waters and wind into a lailaps (whirlwind or sea squall), and as the sea turns violent the disciples' faith is tested. The disciples fail miserably. "Jesus does not criticize the disciples for fearing a storm. He faults them for thinking the demonic forces of the seas were more powerful than he." (Charles 66) While the demonic sea pays attention to Jesus, the disciples still do not understand (4:41). Who is this that the wind and sea obey him?
On October 17, 1735 John Wesley and his brother Charles set sail from England to Savannah, Georgia. John's goal was to preach to the Indians and lead them to Christ. On the four-month-long trip, a storm came up suddenly and broke the main mast. While the Englishmen were crying, a group of Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. John Wesley was impressed by their personal faith in the face of a dangerous, life-threatening storm. He became convinced of his inner weakness while the Moravians seemed to possess an inner strength he did not. He later wrote in his journal, "It was then that I realized that mine was a dry land, fair weather faith."
This story from Mark offers us a better way. At the heart of it, the message lies in our supplying the answer to the disciples' question: "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.